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Cistercian Abbeys: CWMHIR

Name: CWMHIR Location: Abbey Cwmhir County: Powys
Foundation: 1143 Mother house: Whitland
Relocation: 1176 Founder: Cadwallon ap Madog
Dissolution: March 1537 Prominent members:
Access: Open to the public

Cwmhir Abbey nave
© Stuart Harrison
<click to enlarge>
Cwmhir Abbey nave

Cwmhir was founded in 1143 and was settled with a colony of monks from Whitland. The original settlement was at Dyvanner (now Ty faenor). It seems that the community was not very successful at this site and moved to Cwmhir just over thirty years later.(1) Cwmhir was a gift of land from Cadwallon ap Madog, the chief lord of the Welsh district of cantref of Maelienydd. He was killed three years later by the Marcher lord Roger Mortimer, who then assumed patronage of the abbey.(2) Cwmhir was the most remote of all the Welsh Cistercian houses and was described at the beginning of the thirteenth century as situated ‘in a mountainous district remote from parish churches’.(3) The monks of Cwmhir Abbey were confronted with a problem of conflicting loyalties: the abbey was endowed by both Welsh and Anglo-Norman lords, and whilst being Welsh through and through, it was important that the monks showed allegiance to the English king. This dilemma caused many problems for the community over the years. In 1228, for example, royal forces burnt one of its granges for supporting the Welsh cause. Three years later, the English army was apparently tricked into an ambush by a Cwmhir monk. In revenge Henry II burned one of the abbey granges and levied a fine of £200 on the abbot.(4)

The abbey also suffered from some internal problems. In 1195 the lay-brothers of Cwmhir stole their abbot’s horses because he had forbidden them to drink beer. The offending monks were to make their way to Clairvaux on foot and abide by the decision of the abbot of Clairvaux.(5) The abbey was originally intended for sixty monks but, after the Welsh wars, it is unlikely that the abbey was wealthy enough to support such a large community. The economic difficulties of the fourteenth century, alongside heavy damage incurred during the revolt of Owain Glyn Dwr (1401-2), also greatly impoverished the monastery. In 1535, there was a tiny community of three and an annual income assessed at just £25.(6) The house was surrendered two years later. The site later passed to the Fowler family who defended the property for the royalist cause during the civil war of the 1640s. Despite their best efforts, the house was unfortunately stormed and wrecked in 1644. Modern excavation of the ruins began in the late nineteenth century and the remains of the abbey, including parts of the church and the earthworks of other monastic buildings, are now freely accessible at all reasonable times.